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Monday, September 21, 2015

Until Further Notice, The AFC East Continues to Run Through Foxborough, MA

If the Bills are the biggest threat in the AFC East to the Patriots in 2015, it should be another cakewalk to a meaningless division title. Poor Buffalo (1-1 overall, 1-1 home) was all geared up for the annual Rex Ryan (who is now 4-10 against the Patriots in his career as a head coach) Week 2 Super Bowl vs. New England (2-0 overall, 1-0 away). In fact, the Bills looked the part of a true contender for the opening drive of the game and then in the fourth quarter which was mostly garbage time until they made it interesting in an eventual 40-32 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Tom Brady (38 of 59, 466 yards, 3 TDs), Julian Edelman (11 catches, 97 yards, 2 TDs), Rob Gronkowski (7 catches, 113 yards, 1 TD) and Dion Lewis (98 yards receiving, 40 yards rushing, 1 TD) shredded what is supposedly one of the top defenses in the NFL. Other than Rex Ryan's crazy lack of discipline (14 penalties, 140 yards) and attention to detail, the biggest tangible question surrounding the Bills is whether Tyrod Taylor (23 of 30, 242 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs; 43 yards rushing) can be a starting quarterback on a playoff contender. Throwing mostly short yardage passes might work in the regular season against garbage defenses (hi Indy) but that's not how you get to the postseason.

Buffalo received the opening drive and went 80 yards in 10 plays: rookie Karlos Williams capped off the 5-minute drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. New England bounced back with an 8-yard touchdown catch by Edelman. The Pats then took advantage of two very short fields to go ahead 21-7 on Lewis' 6-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter and Gronk's 2-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter. Former Dolphin Charles Clay's 9-yard touchdown catch cut it to 21-13 but Dan Carpenter missed the extra point. Those were Buffalo's last points until the fourth quarter when the Patriots had expanded their lead to 37-13.

New England's defense combined for eight sacks (their most since 2003) and three interceptions (by Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler). The Bills have much higher paid defensive players like Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams but there was no question that Chandler Jones (6 tackles, 3 sacks) and Jamie Collins (11 tackles, 2.5 sacks) were the most dangerous guys on that side of the ball at least on Sunday. Stephen Gostkowski's 46-yard field goal made it 24-13 heading into halftime for the visitors. LeSean McCoy (89 yards rushing, 27 yards receiving) doesn't seem to be Rex's favored type of physical running back despite his superior talent.

Gostkowski opened the scoring in the third quarter with a 21-yard field goal followed by a 22-yard touchdown catch by Edelman and a 50-yard field goal. After getting blanked in the third, the Bills showed some fight in the fourth on Robert Woods' 32-yard touchdown catch (that went right over Butler's hands). New England outsmarted themselves trying to run up the score when they just could have burned the clock and gotten out of Buffalo smoothly. Instead, they turned it over on downs and the Bills inched closer on Taylor's 7-yard touchdown run then truly made things interesting on a 24-yard touchdown catch by Sammy Watkins (who had burned Bradley Fletcher) following a fumble by Brady.

New England drove 72 yards in seven plays (3:01) and made it 40-32 on Gostkowski's 25-yard field goal with 1:15 remaining. Ryan iced it with his game-ending interception on an overthrow by Taylor. In the first two games this season, Lewis has been a revelation that looks like he'll be a very useful weapon if he can just hang onto the ball (he fumbled for the second week in a row). Today, the pleasant surprise was provided by Aaron Dobson (7 catches, 87 yards) who actually looked like an NFL player. New England only dressed three wide receivers and while Edelman can come close (tying his career-high with 19 targets), they need other guys to turn to once in a while. Danny Amendola had his customary one catch but at least it was a great one: a sweet diving 29-yard grab on the final drive.

So much changes from week to week in the NFL that is really silly to draw any type of conclusions from results between other teams, particularly this early in the season. With that said, the fact that Miami struggled so much in their Week 1 victory at Washington then followed that up with a 23-20 loss at Jacksonville (1-1) this afternoon shows that they seem to be their usual mediocre selves. How is Joe Philbin still employed there? If the Jets (1-0) lose tomorrow night in Indy (0-1) as expected, the Patriots will be up one game already on the rest of the soft AFC East.

New England's Week 3 meeting with the Jaguars next Sunday (1, CBS) has all the makings of a trap game: they are going into a bye week after that and they know that they can sleepwalk and still beat lowly (but improving!) Jacksonville. That's why I can picture the Pats looking terrible but still beating the Jags by a few scores. They always have a game like this, especially early in the regular season when they are getting the kinks out and some useless team (think Oakland last season) comes to Gillette for their beating. Prepare to be frustrated since I know that the Patriots will be double-digit favorites at home.

Friday, September 11, 2015

It's a New Season (2015) but The Patriots Still Own the Steelers

Our long national nightmare is over: that debacle which shall not be named has passed and the 2015 NFL regular season finally began tonight at Gillette Stadium as the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots beat the Steelers 28-21. Typical of an opener, there were plenty of highlights for both teams but also a boatload of mistakes and things to correct in the weeks to come. New England (1-0) used a near flawless performance by Tom Brady (25 of 32 for 288 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) to propel them past Ben Roethlisberger (26 of 38 for 351 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) and Pittsburgh (0-1).

Brady passed Brett Favre for the most wins as the QB of one team (161). Rob Gronkowski tied his career-high with three touchdown catches as he picked up where he left off: he's scored in seven straight games (including playoffs) dating back to last season. For whatever reason, New England typically shreds Pittsburgh's defense and this was no different despite the fact that Dick LeBeau left and former assistant Keith Butler took over as the defensive coordinator. Cheech (LeVeon Bell) & Chong (LeGarrette Blount) each missed the game for their weed infraction last season while Martavis Bryant sat for the first of his four-game suspension for a similar sticky icky icky offense. DeAngelo Williams surprisingly was very effective, gaining 127 yards on 21 carries for Pittsburgh. Each club was also shorthanded on the offensive line since centers Maurkice Pouncey and Bryan Stork were out with injuries.

One of the newest Patriots Dion Lewis (15 carries, 69 yards; 4 catches, 51 yards) took advantage of his temporarily expanded role with Blount out. James White never saw the field and Brandon Bolden (5 carries, 1 yard; 1 catch, 12 yards) might as well have stayed home too because this game belonged to Lewis when it came to the patchwork running backs for the Pats. He is listed at 5-foot-8 but he's probably closer to 5-foot-6, regardless he looks shifty and hard to take down despite his small size. He won't get nearly the same touches with Blount back next week at Buffalo but he could become Shane Vereen's replacement at least when it comes to the short passing game that Brady loves to utilize. Lewis even fumbled in the fourth quarter near the goal-line after making a 19-yard catch but head coach Bill Belichick didn't put him in the doghouse like you'd expect (his hand might have been forced by the lack of depth).

The biggest weakness of New England this season figures to be their secondary. Malcolm Butler theoretically looks ready to be a No. 1 corner but it is scary with no real dependable guy beside him (veteran castoffs Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher could have sizable roles). Antonio Brown is perhaps the toughest wide receiver to cover in the NFL so Butler had a real test right out of the gate. Brown had nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown but those numbers are slightly misleading since he caught an 11-yard touchdown with two seconds left in the contest. You know that the Patriots offense will put points on the board so all they need from the defense is the occasional stop and timely turnovers. Tonight they had three sacks and an interception by Duron Harmon after Roethlisberger threw into double coverage in the fourth quarter when the Steelers trailed by 14 points.

After a scoreless first quarter, New England went up 14-0 in the second quarter on a pair of touchdown catches by Gronk (16 yards and 6 yards respectively). Josh Scobee had a rough first half in his Pittsburgh debut: he missed two field goals before hitting a 44-yard kick with three seconds left in the second quarter. Scott Chandler's first catch as a Patriot was a 1-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter making it 21-3. Pittsburgh cut it to a two-score game with a 1-yard run by something named Will Johnson while Markus Wheaton caught the two-point conversion. The Steelers got stuffed in the red zone early in the fourth quarter and settled for a 24-yard field goal which cut it to 21-14. Gronk's hat trick was completed with a one-yard touchdown catch on the ensuing drive.

The Patriots get a few extra days to rest and prepare for the Bills next Sunday (1, CBS) in Orchard Park, NY. Buffalo hosts Indianapolis this Sunday in what should be an interesting matchup. Say what you will about Rex Ryan but he always seemed to get the most out of the Jets and they usually gave the Patriots tough games. On the other side, the Steelers will host the 49ers next Sunday in their home opener. Unless their defense improves drastically (which I can't see happening), I don't think that the Pats will see Pittsburgh again this season. Actually, I hope that they meet in the playoffs since I think I know how that will turn out (in New England's favor of course).